Egypt′s women demand end to harassment | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 02.08.2012
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Egypt's women demand end to harassment

Security forces are nearly non-existent on the streets of Egypt and an increasing number of women fall victim to sexual harassment. Harassers target protesters in what some call politically motivated abuse.

When Nihal Saad Zaghloul sleeps, she comes face-to-face with the men who assaulted her at Tahrir Square. They stand in front of her grab and grope at her until she wakes up. It was a Friday at the end of June when Nihal went to Tahrir Square with her friends to demonstrate with her friends as she often did. But that Friday was one she will never forget.

"I was separated from my friends, men tore off my headscarf and groped at me," she said. "There were more than 15 men. Their hands were everywhere. I was more scared than I have ever been in my entire life."

Other demonstrators came to Nihal's aid and pulled her out of the circle of men. The people who didn't get the help Nihal did report of worse happening to them: of having their clothes torn away and feeling hands all over their bodies and even of being raped.

Politically motivated attacks?

Sally Zohney of UN Women

Sally Zohney fights for women's rights in Egypt

The men who sexually abuse women have been appearing for several weeks whenever Cairo's main squares become the stage for protesters. But it remains unclear who the men are. They tend to appear at the same spots in organized groups with as many as 30 people. Sally Zohney of UN Women said at least some of the men have been hired to keep women from protesting.

"The type of harassment against female protesters is different from the harassment on the street," she said. "It's very vulgar and always related to honor and pride. It's to break the will of women who are on the street."

Daily abuse

Not all harassment is politically motivated, however. Many men tag along using the anonymity of the crowd to cover up the crimes they commit against women. Such abuse also occurs in daily life as cases of harassment and abuse increase and become extremer making it nearly impossible for women to walk through Cairo without being harassed. More than 80 percent of Egyptian women are sexually harassed on a daily basis and more than half of men admitted to having harassed women, according to a 2006 report by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

A general view of Tahrir Square REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Women have reported being abused at Tahrir Square

Zohney said, however, she thinks actual rates are much higher. Security forces have nearly disappeared from the streets of Egypt since the revolution, leaving no one to bring the perpetrators to justices. "And even when police are there, they don't do anything," Zohney said. "Harassers know that they will go unpunished. He can harass a girl, he can beat her, he can rape her and he knows he will go unpunished."

Confusing victims with perpetrators

Women are often held at fault for the crimes committed against them. Even former president Hosni Mubarak said women should wear veils or headscarves to prevent sexual harassment. A study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights showed that women with head coverings were harassed just as much as women without them.

Screen shot of pinpoints abuse in Cairo

Many women, especially young women, have said they have had enough and are demanding their rights, raising awareness of sexual harassment in the public and fighting for change. The blog, which won one of this year's top awards at the DW's International Weblog Award the BOBs, allows women to pinpoint and publish when and where they were victims of harassment - making it clear to police and the public where abuses occur. The site also plays a role in organizing demonstrations and campaigns to help women stand up for their rights.

Eroding women's rights

In addition to sexual harassment, women are also taking to the streets to protest against threats to their rights. Parties in the now-dissolved parliament discussed forbidding women the right to divorce and lowering the age of marriage from 18 to 12.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul said she is ready for a long battle for women's rights in Egypt.

"I just wish that we would be treated equally as human beings," she said. "And I wish that no other woman has to experience what happened to me."

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